PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will face each other in a French Open semifinal that feels like a final.
Djokovic is trying to win his first championship at Roland Garros to complete a career Grand Slam. Nadal is trying to become the only man to win eight titles at one major tournament.
"You are not playing a match for a title. You are just playing a match to be in the final," Nadal said. "Big difference."
Theirs is not the only semifinal Friday, of course. No. 4-seeded David Ferrer of Spain plays No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in the other. Djokovic vs. Nadal goes on court first at 1 p.m. local time (6 a.m. EDT), and here are five things — one per set, perhaps — to watch:
ONLY A SEMIFINAL
The past 11 matches between Djokovic and Nadal were in championship matches, including five at Grand Slam tournaments (Djokovic won three). But while Djokovic is ranked and seeded No. 1, Nadal slipped in the rankings while missing seven months with a left knee injury and was seeded only No. 3 in Paris. The draw could have placed Nadal on either half of the field, but he wound up on Djokovic's side.
WHO IS FAVORED?
Their head-to-head history, and Nadal's 57-1 career mark at Roland Garros, certainly seem to bolster the Spaniard's chances. This is their 35th match against each other, and Nadal leads 19-15 overall, 12-3 on clay, 6-3 in Grand Slam tournaments, 4-0 at the French Open (including last year's final). But after losing his first nine matches against Nadal on clay, Djokovic has won three of their last six, including the most recent encounter, in the final at Monte Carlo in April. There are those who think Djokovic has gained a mental edge against Nadal, the way Nadal did against Roger Federer in that rivalry.
HOW LONG WILL THEY GO?
These two guys played the longest major final, by time, at the Australian Open in 2012, going for 5 hours, 53 minutes. One reason: They engage in looooooong points, because both are superb court-coverers and defenders. No ball is out of reach for either. Djokovic's arms and legs seem elastic, Nadal's motor never slows. Djokovic declared right after his quarterfinal victory, "I'm ready to play five sets." Asked about that Australian epic, he said: "Do you want to see more than six hours' match? I'm sure I don't want to be six hours on the court."
The forecast for Friday shows no chance of rain, which would be to Nadal's liking. When the sun is out and the court and tennis balls stay dry, it allows Nadal to slather his heavy topspin on his big forehand cuts, making that left-handed shot all the more dangerous. The 2012 French Open final was interrupted by showers, and Djokovic took eight consecutive games in on stretch. But eventually, play was halted Sunday, and when they resumed Monday, Nadal finished off his four-set victory. There's one intangible to keep in mind: Djokovic's childhood coach — he likened her to a "second mother" — died last weekend, and he says he wants to win the title in her honor.
THE OTHER GUYS
The second semifinal features one particularly intriguing story line. Tsonga is trying to become the first man from France to win the country's Grand Slam tournament since Yannick Noah — whose son, Joakim, plays for the NBA's Chicago Bulls — did it 30 years ago. Expect a loud and proud crowd to give Tsonga plenty of support against Ferrer, who is 0-5 in Grand Slam semifinals. They have very different styles. Ferrer is a metronome, racing back and forth along the baseline to extend points with little flash. The charismatic Tsonga, who beat Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, plays a far more aggressive get-to-the-net game.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich